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Characteristics of Agile Leaders

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Agile leaders are passionate about agile practices. They look to instill trust in their people, create transparency and are open to constructive criticism so that great work can be achieved. They focus on the vision and customers. Understanding what agile means, they give autonomy to the people, support them, and encourage them to develop and grow through learning and experimentation.

Sheetal Thaker, an agile consultant, spoke about the characteristics of leaders who are valuable for organisations adopting agility at Agile Tour London 2020.

Our current leaders for agile are our Scrum Masters, agile coaches, product managers/owners and anyone else who is pushing the agile agenda and making it happen, Thaker mentioned. Although, key leaders are starting to get on board and drive the agile initiative, she added.

In an agile world, leaders understand what it means to work in an agile way and therefore, continuously provide the support needed to implement the right kind of change sought after by the organisation, Thaker said. Leaders invoke trust in people by encouraging them to develop and grow through learning and experimentation. They engage and look to understand how the organisation is progressing through outcomes rather than individual performances.

In her talk, Thaker described the characteristics of agile leaders:

A great agile leader is open to change, trusts their people and understands the value agile brings. They drive the agile agenda in the right direction by focusing on the vision, supporting the roadmap that teams need to embark upon to bring that vision to life. They are open and receptive to constructive criticism and go out of their way to remove a culture of blame and provide the foundations required to deliver great products and services.

Thaker stated that agile leaders present opportunities to reach out to real customers and get closer to the vision. They also remove the uncomfortableness of speaking one’s mind without the fear of being reprimanded.

When you are leading an agile initiative, are passionate about making great things happen, put your people’s focus on doing great things and give them the autonomy to do so, in turn great things inevitably do happen, Thaker said.

InfoQ interviewed Sheetal Thaker about agile leadership.

InfoQ: You mentioned Scrum Masters, agile coaches, and product managers/owners as our agile leaders. Do they perceive themselves like this, do they see themselves as leaders?

Sheetal Thaker: So, this is a good question and I believe that they do not perceive themselves as agile leaders, but they should. Such roles, when working in an agile environment, actively demonstrate the positive impacts of transparency, collaboration and trust. They are leading their teams towards better productivity, safe spaces to voice opinions and trust in individual skill sets. How is this behaviour not a sign of great leadership?

InfoQ: What’s your view on leading people in the agile world?

Thaker: When one is leading in an agile world, we are creating a culture that breeds trust, transparency and collaboration. An agile leader will seek to break down silos and cultivate a workplace where everyone has a voice and they are listened to and respected. They create a work environment that frowns on command and control, understands work/life balance and encourages innovation.

InfoQ: How can we help existing leaders to adopt and further develop the characteristics that are needed to lead agility?

Thaker: For many existing leaders, the goal is to meet the expectations of their shareholders. If we could shift focus to the vision and build a product that’s more meaningful for their real customers, meeting their expectations, rather than shareholders, this will automatically exceed the expectations of shareholders.

The best way we can do this is to lead by example and prove that working in an agile way can drive focused deliveries, meeting customer expectations and reap better ROIs for the shareholders. Report all wins, describing the changes made to achieve these wins and allow for transparency, even when things fail, as they are also important growth factors and decision drivers.

I have actively demonstrated the success and growth that agile ways of working can deliver through the concept of testing and learning practices. Initially this was met with some resistance by the leaders. However, by buying some time and working relentlessly with multiple teams, we were able to truly demonstrate the positive impacts of building an innovative product. This exceeded the expectations of not only the customers, but it won industry awards for the best product in the market in 2019.

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